Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Chapter Four – Analysis

Gaskell Blog ©
Guest Contributor: Kim Egolf

Brief Summary

Ruth and Henry travel to Milham Grange, Ruth’s childhood home. It is an idyllic place, blooming with fresh flowers and memories. As they approach the house, they hear Old Thomas — one of the local laborers who is now steward of the Grange — reading Bible verses aloud. He is surprised to see them, but welcomes Ruth warmly. Henry is more taken with Ruth’s beauty and innocence than he is with the house.

After a walk around the countryside, Ruth and Henry find themselves at the local inn. It is already 8 o’clock, so Henry goes inside to ask the proprietor for a shortcut back to town. While Ruth is waiting in the yard, a gig drives up. Inside is Mrs. Mason and she is livid to see Ruth out on a Sunday evening with a young man. She bars Ruth from ever entering her house again.Henry returns and Ruth tearfully tells him what has happened. He asks Ruth to go with him to London, assuring her that he will take of her. As he hies off to get his carriage for the journey, Ruth is left at the inn in a state of considerable turmoil. Her budding conscience can tell that something is not quite right and she determines to take refuge at her old home, Milham Grange, with Thomas and Mary. Ruth expresses her wishes to Henry, but instead of Milham, Henry heads toward London.

Analysis

This is certainly a chapter of highs and lows. This Sunday dawns “as brilliant as if there were no sorrow, or death, or guilt in the world.” And yet, before the evening is over, all of these things come crashing down on Ruth’s head. Overall, I think this is a chapter that highlights loss in every aspect of Ruth’s life.

First, we see the quaint home where Ruth grew up. As she and Henry tour the house and grounds, we see the webs of memory spinning in Ruth’s head and they give us an intimate glimpse into the happier times of her life.

Ruth stood gazing into the room, seeing nothing of what was present. She saw a vision of former days — an evening in the days of her childhood; her father sitting in the ‘master’s corner’ near the fire, sedately smoking his pipe, while he dreamily watched his wife and child; her mother reading to her, as she sat on a little stool at her feet. It was gone — all gone into the land of shadows; but for the moment it seemed so present in the old room, that Ruth believed her actual life to be the dream.

But even as she stands in her old home, she bursts into tears, knowing that it is all gone.

And yet, there is still some true love for her in the world. Old Thomas is present and seems to represent the simpler and more holy life that Ruth might choose. We are introduced to him by way of some comforting Bible verses. He is genuinely happy to see Ruth and feels very protective of her once he notices the way Henry looks at and treats her. Yet he feels like he cannot communicate with her.

He longed to give her a warning of the danger that he thought she was in, and yet he did not know how. When she came up, all he could think of to say was a text; … ‘My dear, remember the devil goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour; remember that, Ruth.’

Thomas tries to warn her about Henry, the roaring lion. And in this chapter we see even more about how far Henry and Ruth differ. She is innocence and hope and life. And he is all about the surface and what people and things can do for him. When Ruth appreciates the natural beauty around her, Henry only appreciates Ruth’s beauty. Instead of seeing how Ruth loves Old Thomas, Henry only sees how inferior in status the day-laborer is.

Chapter four shows us how the ideal can come crashing down into the real very quickly. We also see how Ruth’s life could have been if she had made a different decision at the end of the chapter.

Characters

Thomas and Mary (the old couple)

They are former day-laborers who now act as stewards of Milham Grange, Ruth’s old home. Mary is off at church, so we only meet Thomas. He is a godly man who so loves the language of the Bible that he thinks in Bible verses. But yet he does not seem self-righteous. His godliness seems natural and beneficial, a nurturing and caring presence rather than a censuring one. It is clear that Thomas cares deeply for Ruth. And she does the same for him.

He is so good and kind, he is like a father to me. I remember sitting on his knee many and many a time when I was a child, whilst he told me stories out of the “Pilgrim’s Progress”.

Thomas’s instinct is to protect Ruth. And, indeed, it is to Thomas and Mary that Ruth turns at the end of the chapter. Oh, what would they have been able to give her if Henry had not spirited her away?

Gaskellian Phrases

The whole idea of Ruth revisiting her childhood home reminded me of Margaret Thornton’s similar trip back to Helstone parsonage in North and South.

For both women, the trip precipitates a major life decision: Margaret must decide how to live her life and Ruth must decide whether or not to go with Henry. But there is a wisdom to Margaret that Ruth is sadly lacking. This is vividly portrayed in the very different reactions both women have to seeing the change in their former homes.

From Ruth, Chapter 4:

Then, still silent, she went on into her mother’s parlour. But there, the bleak look of what had once been full of peace and mother’s love, struck cold on her heart. She uttered a cry, and threw herself down by the sofa, hiding her face in her hands, while her frame quivered with her repressed sobs.

From North and South, Chapter XLVI, “Once and Now”:

And somehow, this visit to Helstone had not been all — had not been exactly what she had expected. There was change everywhere… A great improvement it was called; but Margaret sighed over the old picturesqueness, the old gloom, and the grassy wayside of former days. She sate by the window on the little settle, sadly gazing out upon the gathering shades of night, which harmonized well with her pensive thought.

Discussion Questions

  • What are your impressions of Milham Grange? Does it seem like a nice place to grow up?
  • What about Thomas and Mary (the old couple at the house)? Could Ruth have made her home with them?
  • Knowing Mrs. Mason’s motivations for her precipitous speech, do you believe she would really have refused Ruth entry to her house? Is she a hypocrite for her behavior?
  • Do you believe that Ruth fully knows what she’s doing?
  • Is Henry a villain?
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4 Comments Add yours

  1. 1. I think having a picture of where Ruth grew up really helps us understand her love for nature and how it soothes her. It’s secluded spot and the temperaments of her parents also give us a better understanding of her emotional nature and naivete.

    2. I think their steady characters would have helped Ruth but to I don’t think her passionate nature would be tempered. Tom seems very hesitant on how to approach things, if he had only spoken to Ruth instead of leaving it for his wife, how different things would have been but the dear old gentleman seems docile and caring.

    3. I’m a bit divided. Part of me thinks ‘no’ because Mrs. Mason is so careful about the establishments reputation and Ruth’s beauty condemns her, she thinks ‘why else would Mr. Bellingham keep her company if not out of a romantic interest?’

    I also think she’s always been rather annoyed with Ruth. I can’t help but wonder what the ‘arrangement’ Ruth’s banker guardian made with Mrs. Mason and wonder if it was settling a troublesome debt? Which would explain her annoyance.

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